Seattle City Council District 4 spans a diverse set of neighborhoods including Wedgewood, Laurelhurst, U-District, Roosevelt and Wallingford. Some of the neighborhoods are known for being super white and wealthy, while others are majority people of color and predominantly working class.
Incumbent Councilmember Alex Pedersen has declined to seek reelection, opening up the seat for new challengers and fresh approaches. Tech startup founder and urbanist advocate Ron Davis, who won 45% of the vote in the August primaries, has pledged to take the council in a more progressive direction and embrace greater housing density. His opponent, Maritza Rivera, former deputy director of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, has a more conservative position, emphasizing police officer recruitment and criminalizing drug use and possession.
Davis talked to Real Change at our office in Pioneer Square about his vision for the Seattle City Council and hopes for District 4.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: What motivated you to run for city council?
Ron Davis: I think Seattle should be a place where people can start a career, raise a family, age in place, age comfortably without breaking the bank — and it isn’t one. My parents were teenagers when they got pregnant with me, and they were minimum wage workers. But they eventually got their toehold in the middle class through cheap housing. I have this very palpable sense of the way that was the ladder in my own life and how we’ve really closed that door off to people, particularly in places like Seattle.
I felt like I have been given too much privilege, too much luck to just stay on the sidelines and advocate from the sidelines. I need to get into the arena to make sure other people have a shot — especially people that don’t look like me, because the walls are twice as high for them.
What makes you better than your opponent, Maritza Rivera?
In terms of a better fit for the city, I actually embody its progressive democratic values more. Seattle is a nerdy place that cares about things like science. My plans are all evidence-based, or I do my very best to make sure that they’re evidence-based and I update them based on the evidence. Whereas I have an opponent whose plans on policing, for instance, involve hiring 12 to 24 [times] as many cops as the police say are possible. I’m not planning on doing anything that’s a fantasy. My opponent says we should have more transportation choices, we should have behavioral health support, we should have plans to cut $200 million from the budget. I still believe in math.
My opponent was called out by 26 [out] of 40 of her employees at the city for abuse and creating a toxic workplace and incompetently handling city money. You won’t find anything like that in my past. I don’t leave burnt bridges. I invest aggressively in the people around me and thoughtfully and empathetically grow them as much as they possibly can. I was a business owner and was often praised by my investors as being very good with a buck.
In your opinion, what are the biggest issues Seattle is facing right now?
We’re one of the richest cities in the history of human civilization, and we have one of the highest homelessness rates on the planet. I think that’s an egregious moral and humanitarian failure, and it’s also a failure of basic understanding of how policy works. We’re also one of the most educated cities, and we say we’re one of the most progressive cities in North America. So for us to be choosing something that is so inhumane and is solvable as a policy matter is insane.
While homelessness is primarily a housing problem, we also have really destroyed our behavioral health system over the last 30, 40 years. I’m a religious person, and I believe that a community’s moral status is really judged by how it treats the people who have the least capacity to take care of themselves. Often that’s people with the most complex behavioral issues, and we have really failed.
If elected, are you willing to fight to take on the rich and powerful to accomplish your policy priorities? And do you want to tax the rich more?
Yes, and yes. There was a [Political Action Committee] in the primary that spent $80,000 on my opponent, because they know I’m going to and they know I’m planning to tax them more.
Is there anything you want to add?
We have the most regressive tax system in the country. It’s absurd. If we even had a remotely balanced tax code, what we could afford would be transformational in terms of housing, in terms of behavioral health, in terms of unarmed alternatives to policing where they’re appropriate, in terms of investment in green infrastructure and non-car infrastructure.
Do you want to stop the sweeps? If so, how would you make it happen? If not, how do you justify them?
The only way to really address people living in public spaces is to offer actual options. We do know that voluntary uptake of services is extremely high when we offer something that isn’t congregate shelter; when we offer our tiny homes ... when we offer permanent supportive housing or we offer vouchers and pay people’s rent. When we offer people viable alternatives, there’s no need to sweep.
I don’t think we should be funding pushing people around the city. Funding is the primary mechanism by which the council has power to make a difference on something like that. I would be one of nine, but that’s what I would fight for.
Right now, there’s the issue that there aren’t many shelter options.
So we need to build them.
If you were a council member today, you would oppose all the sweeps that are going on, right?
Every once in a while, when new capacity opens, we go in and we say, “Hey, there’s opportunities for new capacity.” But only then is when I would support it. So I would oppose anything that does not have [offers] tied with it.
Mayor Bruce Harrell has made clear that any alternative crisis response to 911 calls must follow a co-responder model and involve police officers. Do you agree with the mayor? If so, why? If not, how would you convince the mayor to get on board with a fully civilian crisis team to respond to 911 calls?
I do not agree with the Mayor on this. Our own police department has said we’re 362 officers short of our peak, and our best-case growth scenario is 15 to 30 officers [a year]. So we are going to be short response resources for at least the medium term. To stand up a civilian behavioral health crisis response, and to have to tie officers to it, does nothing to free up police resources for, say, dealing with murder or sex crimes, or some of the places where police might be most effective — it’s just an exercise in wasting money.
The whole point is it’s an alternative. I don’t think it’s pro-police or anti-police to say that; it’s just simply not a great use of resources. SPD did a study of its own calls and said 12% of them could be triage-able straight to behavioral health [and] don’t need an officer. An outside organization came in and said it was 49% of calls. That plan is 0% of calls.
If elected, what would be the major changes you’d make to the city’s public safety policies?
We know that community violence intervention is one of the most evidence-based ways to reduce gun violence. Things like Community Passageways, etc., that involve violence interruption, tend to be the things that are first on the chopping block to get defunded. We should be scaling up our interventions upstream. There are, of course, deeper structural interventions — making sure that we desegregate our housing, making sure that everybody has a home, making sure everybody has treatment that they need.
As I mentioned earlier, at least 12% of our calls could go straight to a behavioral health crisis response team that will be better equipped for dealing with those responses and more likely to de-escalate. We know that voluntary treatment for people with opiate use disorder is the most effective. We know that restorative justice programming tends to produce lower recidivism rates. So we need to make sure that at every step, we’re pursuing the practical thing that we know is going to actually make the city safer, and doing so in a way that respects people’s civil rights.
How would you promote safety for homeless folks?
While people are homeless, making sure that we have a stronger administrative apparatus to represent the rights of homeless people who are harmed would be helpful. I think the number one priority is to get people sheltered in housing. It doesn’t have to be perfect; you get to the tiny home level, and people are substantially safer because they have a locking door and walls.
Do you support superblocks and pedestrian rising main streets and every urban village?
Would you prioritize private vehicles or pedestrians, cyclists and transit?
The latter. I’m overwhelmingly the urbanist candidate in this race, because I think we should make it as easy, safe, convenient and reliable to get around the city without a car as it is with, which would mean a fundamental re-understanding of how we use our right-of-way. Right now, we tax people’s time and safety and the reliability when they do anything but use a car. And it’s a pretty dramatic tax at this point. As a parent with small children — one of whom is now walking 30 minutes a day to middle school, crossing multiple busy roads, terrifying the crap out of his dad — I have a deep passion about this issue and Vision Zero. And also just what it means for climate.
What are three things you would do to immediately improve the lives of Real Change vendors?
So I think we should have guaranteed safe lots where people living in vehicles can go and know that they will get services and not have to be forced out of their vehicles or forced to move. I think we should immediately put in 2,000 tiny homes and make them available to folks who want them. We need to work with libraries and schools to create climate-resilient centers [with] clean air, warming [and] cooling centers for people so that in extreme conditions, there is a place to go 24/7.
Do you know how many public, 24-hour restrooms are in Seattle?
I don’t know the number, but I know it’s egregiously low.
According to the Seattle Parks and Recreation website, there are about 65 24-hour public toilets in Seattle, 11 of which are not porta-potties and almost all of them are in parks. If elected, what would you do to change this?
We have these rules around surplus land around transit spots. I would like to see floor area exemptions and requirements that public bathrooms be put in those spaces. Those are going to be big hubs where lots of people are moving through, so it would maximize access the fastest. We should be building this into our parks levy so that the restrooms are also clean and safe and regularly maintained.
People have a right to use the restroom. It’s obscene, because the only way right now to do it that’s not socially inappropriate or isn’t against the rules hung up on a wall is to go pay money for some good. Obviously, a lot of people don’t have that kind of spare cash.
Do you support or oppose the Seattle City Attorney’s efforts to prosecute drug possession and public use in the Seattle Municipal Court?
I oppose prosecuting for public use.
So if the bill came up, you’d vote against it?
I’d have to see all that’s in the ordinance — what are the limits and how much funding does it unveil. But my latest reading of the bill is that the costs outweigh the benefits right now, that we’re not really getting serious about actually making opiate medical treatment available to people.
What is your alternative plan to addressing the fentanyl crisis?
I have a $20 million plan to open up 10 health hubs, which, according to [UW researcher] Caleb Banta-Green, are the most effective possible way to get buprenorphine into the hands of fentanyl users. It’s the most likely and easiest way to cut death rates, probably about in half, overnight. The medicine can be handed out in a 28-day grouping because it has very low street value [and] a very low overdose likelihood. So it’s an excellent solution for quickly reducing harm. A lot of folks, once they’re on it, essentially gain the agency to start to be more functional and have the opportunity to make choices in their lives because they’re not living from one withdrawal to the next.
I would spend another $15 million on direct harm reduction. We do this with smoking too — you can’t smoke a cigarette on a bus — but there are smoking places, right? I use the term overdose prevention centers; some people call them supervised consumption. But we know that’s the only other evidence-based thing that works. Together, for $35 million, you could cut the death rate somewhere between half and three quarters. With Alex Pedersen’s 2% top-up to the extreme capital gains tax, which would raise about $50 million a year, you could fund that.
Read more of the Oct. 4-10, 2023 issue.